Before I get into the race recap, I should probably rewind a few years to the 2013 Rocky Raccoon 100, my debut 100 Miler, where I first met James Elson, Race Director of the South Downs Way 100. I remember somewhere on the rooty trails of Huntsville State Park, James mentioning how good the Ultra scene was in the UK and how his company, Centurion Running, put on several quality events each year. I’ve kept in touch with James via social media over the last 4 years and have marveled at his ability to not only race at the highest level, but at his passion for organizing professional, well-supported races that grow year-on-year. Therefore, when the time came to sign up for my first Ultra in the UK, it was an easy decision to make it a Centurion Running event.
Online registration opened 2 days after my 50th birthday last August, and after running the Newport parkrun at 9am, I was able to get back to my parent’s house in plenty of time to plonk down the £144.90 entry fee and guarantee a place on the starting line. Also of note, wife Ally had also decided to make South Downs her first ever 100 Mile race, and was ready and waiting with her credit card too. Exciting times ahead!
As is often the case, signing up for a race is the easy part, so the next step in the proceedings was to map out a provisional training plan, adding in numerous races of varying importance. I penciled in the 12-Hour ATR, Javelina Jundred, Cayman Islands Marathon, Seashore Nature Trail 50K, Rocky Raccoon 100, Shamrock Marathon, Singletrack Maniac 50K and Virginia 24-Hour Run/Walk for Cancer as potential races to run which hopefully would help with my South Downs Way 100 preparation – my main focus for the next 10 months.
Fast forward 10 months and race day was almost upon us. Races were run, miles logged and bags packed for the transatlantic trip to the UK. I even got a mention in James’ SDW100 Race Preview which was a real surprise and huge honor.
Steve joins us from his ex-pat base in the US. He is a super experienced runner with literally decades of road running behind him, moving in to ultras in 2009 and subsequently running a huge range of distances, terrain types and conditions. He’s kept his road running up and recently won the Cayman Islands Marathon. In ultra land he’s won races such as Iron Horse 100 and walked off with a masters title at Rocky Raccoon in a 100 mile PB of 15:26. He should certainly find himself in contention here, again if he is rested enough from recent racing exploits.
Packing for the trip wasn’t as stressful as we first imagined – it was basically a case of throwing the mandatory kit into a bag, then adding in all the tried and tested gear we’d trained in for the better part of the last 10 months. Job done.
I won’t bore you with details of the mid-week overnight flight to London Heathrow Airport, nor the pleasant drive to Winchester where the race would start at 6am just a couple of days later. Everything went like clockwork and it was only on race morning that the nerves started to kick in.
It was really nice to “meet-in-person” several online friends and casually chat with sister-in-law Diane and brother-in-law Mick who would be crewing/pacing for Ally throughout the day, but after a short race briefing by James it was finally time to get going on our trek to Eastbourne – 100 miles south-east along the South Downs Way.
Winchester – Beacon Hill Beeches
9.8 miles. Approx 906 ft gain/492 ft loss.
The race started with a fun lap around the Chilcomb Sports Ground field before exiting directly onto the South Downs Way trail. James had warned me at Friday night’s packet pickup not to start off too slowly and to make sure I was in the top 10-20 runners to avoid getting held up on the narrow trail. The starting pace did feel a bit quick, but it was nice to snag a prime spot in the Top Ten with everyone in good spirits, chatting and looking forward to the long day ahead.
As expected, several runners soon disappeared off the front of the pack, leaving me to settle into a nice, comfortable pace – no point doing anything crazy at this stage of the race. The terrain was varied, the constant ups and downs felt good and the miles to the first checkpoint passed quickly. 10 miles done. All systems go. After a quick Tailwind Nutrition top up from the super-enthusiastic volunteers, it was time to start the longest section of the day and head towards the Queen Elizabeth Country Park checkpoint some 12.8 miles away.
Beacon Hill Beeches – Queen Elizabeth Country Park
12.8 miles. Approx 1270 ft gain/1444 ft loss.
Leaving Beacon Hill Beeches there was a nice downhill to negotiate followed by a similar uphill and more rolling terrain before a long, steep, grassy descent to the QECP checkpoint. I kept the effort level easy on the ups and tried to stay relaxed on the downs for fear of trashing my quads this early in the race. It was a bit disheartening to lose ground to the faster descenders, but quite encouraging to pass several runners on the uphill portions of the course. Overall, a decent section and by the time I crossed the busy A3 to arrive at the checkpoint, I’d apparently moved into 7th or 8th place overall, some 9 minutes behind the leader according to brother-in-law Mick – possibly a bit quick at this stage of the race, but aside from a surprising amount of perspiration, everything felt great.
I took time at the checkpoint to top up both soft flasks (1 Tailwind, 1 water), chug down several cups of Tailwind and, as the weather was a lot warmer than anticipated, pop a couple of S Caps “just in case”. Mick also grabbed a couple of banana pieces from the food table, and after thanking everything at the checkpoint, it was time to get moving again.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park – Harting Downs
4.6 miles. Approx 518 ft gain/472 ft loss.
This shorter section started off with a shaded, steep climb out of the checkpoint, but for the most part was fairly flat and very runnable. I was moving well and passed a couple of runners who commented how warm and humid it was. To be honest the temperature felt fine, but I was a bit concerned at the humidity and how much I was sweating.
Harting Downs – Cocking
7.9 miles. Approx 948 ft gain/1073 ft loss.
Another undulating section with almost 1,000 ft of gain and a similar amount of loss. The rolling hills kept on coming and I knew from the elevation profile cards in my pocket (so glad I made these before the race),
that the remaining miles would be similar, if not a little more challenging. As I topped up the soft flasks, the guys at the checkpoint informed me I was in 3rd place – a bit of a shock as I didn’t remember passing anyone in the last 8 miles. I joked that that meant I was probably running a tad too fast, and after some more banana and a few cups of water, I was off and running once again.
Cocking – Bignor Hill
6.6 miles. Approx 951 ft gain/630 ft loss.
With just over a third of the race run, the miles were ticking along nicely and I was thoroughly enjoying everything about the race. The scenery was stunning, the terrain challenging and the volunteers just as enthusiastic as everyone on the Centurion Running Community Facebook Group had suggested. However, just as I was thinking how good everything felt, on the climb out of the Cocking checkpoint I experienced a nasty twang in my left hamstring. It almost cramped but thankfully I caught it just in time. I walked for a minute, chugged some Tailwind, then tried to run again. Same twang in the hamstring. Ouch, followed by more walking as I tried to work out the tight knot that seemed to be forming. At the top of the climb and after my slowest mile of the race so far, thankfully I was able to run freely again, banging out 3 or 4 sub-9 minute miles with ease before finally reaching the Bignor Hill checkpoint.
Bignor Hill – Kithurst Hill
8.4 miles. Approx 856 ft gain/948 ft loss.
Both soft flasks were empty as I arrived at the checkpoint, so as the volunteers refilled with Tailwind and water, I munched on some crisps (chips) and looked for my S Caps. I searched every pocket in my Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts and every compartment in my Salomon Sense Ultra Vest, but frustratingly, no baggie of S Caps could be found. Ah well, onto the next checkpoint. I set off at a good pace and unless I’m mistaken, think I passed a runner on the early downhill section out of Bignor Hill putting me in 2nd place overall. However, just a mile or so later, I experienced more hamstring issues on a short, steep climb before the drop down to the A29 and the river.
The almost-cramping was definitely a concern as there was still over 50 miles to run, but as I rounded a corner the concerns were soon forgotten as I spotted the lead runner just up ahead. I soon caught up to the runner who turned out to be super-talented Steven Lord who was also mentioned in James’ Race Preview. We chatted for awhile and Steven let me know that he was dropping at the next checkpoint. He wasn’t having a great day and said he just “wasn’t feeling it today”. I tried to convince him to hang in there as things would likely improve, but he seemed adamant that his miles were numbered today. I mentioned my hamstring issues and the fact that I’d misplaced my S Caps (likely leaving them at the QECP checkpoint some 25 miles earlier), and Steven generously handed over his bag of capsules for me to use – such a nice gesture, and yet another example of the amazing camaraderie among Ultrarunners. Thanks, Steven – you probably saved my race.
Despite the excitement of taking the race lead, the climb to Kithurst Hill dragged on for ages and gave me plenty of time to think about the miles ahead. I much prefer chasing runners down than being chased and to be honest the thought of holding off the chasers for 50+ miles kinda stressed me out. As I grinded out the climb to the checkpoint, I reminded myself to stay relaxed, run my own race and just keep grinding out the miles.
Kithurst Hill – Washington
3.9 miles. Approx 184 ft gain/548 ft loss.
Thankfully the next section was less than 4 miles long with the exceptional Washington Village Hall checkpoint to look forward to. The terrain was fairly flat with a nice little descent down into Washington via the alternative South Downs Way route. Still feeling good I cruised along the village roads and entered the checkpoint to a big round of applause as the 1st place runner – kinda surreal but definitely a very special moment.
Washington – Botolphs
7.2 miles. Approx 659 ft gain/896 ft loss.
I didn’t need much of anything from the well-stocked checkpoint tables, so after grabbing a few banana pieces, I decided to make tracks and head out towards the trail. Course marking was excellent and the left turn into the field full of horses was easy to find, and the tracks to rejoin the South Downs Way easy to follow. Thankfully the horses were calm and didn’t chase me across the field, which left me to settle in and grind out the 600 ft climb out of Washington. The climb/hike went well and before long it was time to start the long descent past the massive Botolphs Pig Farm down to the 61 mile checkpoint. Fearing I’d be caught at any minute, I did glance back several times to check if the chasers were close behind. Thankfully no-one was in sight, so I pressed on to Botolphs where the enthusiastic Centurion volunteers were waiting.
Botolphs – Saddlescombe Farm
5.4 miles. Approx 978 ft gain/390 ft loss.
I think Race Director James was also waiting at the Botolphs checkpoint. He asked how I was doing and informed me that the chasers were only a few minutes behind. Thanks, James 🙂 With no time to chat, the volunteers quickly topped up my flasks and I was quickly off and running – crossing the busy A283 towards the climb out of Botolphs, but not before turning right instead of left towards the trail entrance. What a time to waste a couple of minutes! The climb was a bit daunting and resembled a ski-slope more than a runnable trail. I was able to jog the early section but soon succumbed to hands-on-quads for the remainder of the ascent. The run through the beautiful Dyke Golf Club was a chance to regain some momentum and I also remembered my brother Gary would be at the Devil’s Dyke crewpoint just a few miles further along the trail.
It was great to see Gary and John waiting at the bottom of a slightly treacherous gravel path waving a Welsh flag. I didn’t really get a chance to hang around and chat, although I did hand off my Topo Athletic cap which was really beginning to annoy me. I think this point is also where I realised my quads were starting to rebel! However, they promised they’d be at the Ditchling Beacon crewpoint some 6 miles down the road and let me know they had some Coke and Mars Bars to help perk me up. I don’t remember much about the Saddlescombe Farm checkpoint, but do know I was still lucky enough to be leading the race.
Saddlescombe Farm – Housedean Farm
10 miles. Approx 938 ft gain/1204 ft loss.
In my mind I was already dreading this section – 10 miles long (2nd longest of the day) and lots more ups and downs. The highlight was seeing Gary and John again at Ditchling Beacon (Mile 72.1), with an extra surprise of seeing online-friend Paul Navesey (who also ran the 2013 Rocky Raccoon 100 – see above) right before the crewpoint area. Gary’s Coke tasted fantastic, but the boost was short lived, as in addition to my legs feeling noticeably more fatigued, Gary motioned that the 2nd place guy was literally “right behind me”. I sped off down the hill, more in fear than anything else, but deep down I think knew it was only a matter of time before I’d have to relinquish my lead. However, I was still in front, so I dug deep, really deep, just like I’d practiced during all those weekend long runs and bridge repeats. Maybe, just maybe, if I could hold off the chaser until the next checkpoint, I could get in and out fast and hold on.
The descent down to Housedean Farm at Mile 75 was where the pass took place. 2nd place guy (with pacer) sped by like I was standing still. I tried to respond, but the quads were having none of it. I wished him well as he quickly disappeared into the distance, chatting away with his pacer like he was out for a Saturday afternoon cruise. A mile or so down the road was the next checkpoint. I desperately needed fluids and took time to eat more banana and munch on a few crisps for the extra salt while the volunteers filled my soft flasks.
Housedean Farm – Southease
6.7 miles. Approx 748 ft gain/958 ft loss.
Heading out of Housedean Farm, I tried to stay positive. One of the volunteers ran out of the checkpoint with me, told me I looked great and that if I kept the lead guy (Adrien Prigent) in sight on the next climb there was every chance I could catch him and challenge for the lead. The climb was a rough one though – my hamstrings were twanging and rather than clawing back distance, the lead guy and pacer just kept extending their lead. I decided to ease off the effort level and get back to running my own race. After all, there were still 24 miles to run and rather than blow up completely, I was desperate to hold on to 2nd place. Slowly but surely, I managed to regain a good rhythm and the miles ticked along nicely. Admittedly, it was disappointing to have lost the lead, but in all honesty if someone before the race had offered the chance to be in 2nd place at Mile 80 of the South Downs Way 100 I’d have grabbed it with both hands.
The descent down to Southease wasn’t particularly steep, but my quads were locking up and it was difficult to cruise down the hill as I’d hoped. Eventually I made it down to the checkpoint where the volunteers informed me I was about 15 minutes behind the leader who apparently was “feeling great”. Ah well, time to eat some fruit and refuel before the long climb out of Southease towards Alfriston. 16 miles to go.
Southease – Alfriston
8.3 miles. Approx 879 ft gain/719 ft loss.
On the descent to Southease I had really looked forward to the next climb out of the checkpoint. Now I was climbing, I just wanted to be on the flat or going downhill again. Pretty typical at this stage of an Ultra I guess. I noted my pace had slowed dramatically and guessed I was running 10 or 11 minute miles rather than 9 minute or faster pace I’d maintained through the first half of the race. The rest of this section is a bit of a blur, but I do remember it was a great feeling to reach Alfriston knowing there were less than 10 miles left to run. Once again, the volunteers were first class and topped up my soft flasks in record time.
Alfriston – Jevington
4.1 miles. Approx 636 ft gain/564 ft loss.
I don’t remember too much about this short section either. I think there was another 400 ft climb out of Alfriston, but it’s all a bit of a blur to be honest. I do remember talking to a dog that turned out to be a log, and also the Salomon soft flasks rubbing against my ribs. The pain was pretty intense so I decided to carry them in my hands for the remainder of the race. Oddly enough, 12 days post-race, and my ribs still hurt to touch. Kinda weird, as aside from the rubbing in the last 10 miles, the Sense Ultra vest performed flawlessly. Anyway, I do remember the final descent down to the Village Hall in Jevington. The volunteers were in good spirits and were impressed that I’d likely be finishing the race without having to use my Petzl headlamp. They also informed me, although the leader had come through their checkpoint a long time before me (40 minutes I believe), the 3rd place guy was about 50 minutes behind at the Mile 84 checkpoint. Unless I blew up pretty spectacularly in the last 4 miles, 2nd place was mine for the taking.
Jevington – Eastbourne
4.3 miles. Approx 404 ft gain/732 ft loss.
I’d read about the nasty climb out of Jevington, and at this stage in the race it was pretty cruel. The hike was slow, but I kept plodding on, desperate to see the famous Mile 98 concrete trig point where runners leave the South Downs Way on the final descent to Eastbourne. This final descent is also quite notorious (there’s even a video on the Centurion Running website to assist the runners), and with darkness finally settling in I decided it was probably a good time to dig out the headlamp.
Pre-race, I must have watched the final descent video a dozen times, but somehow, despite being clearly marked, I still managed to miss the narrow gully and run too far to the left (see below). I soon realised my mistake (no red/white Centurion tape or glow sticks), and thankfully was able to retrace my steps before losing too much time. The descent down the gully wasn’t much fun – overgrown and rutted – but eventually it opened up on the Linkway which meant it was pretty much all asphalt to the finish.
Running through the streets of Eastbourne at 10:30pm was quite the experience. Several cars beeped their horns (it looked like they were loaded with crew members making their way to the finish line), and the one or two pedestrians out walking their dogs looked at me like I was crazy. I thought about telling them I’d just run from Winchester, but didn’t think they’d “get it”. The final mile was right at 9 minute mile pace (funny how that happens), and as I entered the Eastbourne Sports Park track with Gary, John and the Centurion crew cheering me on, the emotion of the day took over and a wave of adrenaline rushed through my body. Crossing the finish line in 2nd place in 16 hours 37 minutes 32 seconds was such a sweet feeling, and with James Elson there to award my buckle and congratulate me, it’s a moment I’ll savour for a very long time.
To summarise, I can’t speak highly enough of the Centurion Running experience. To Race Director James Elson and each and every volunteer who gave up their valuable time, I can’t thank you enough. To Diane and Mick for giving up their weekends to crew & pace Ally and support me – a huge thank you. Gary and John – thanks for being out there and providing a massive boost just when I needed one. To have you waiting at the finish line was simply fantastic. Ally – not only did you conquer the rolling hills of the South Downs Way to earn your first 100 mile buckle, but you also supported me on every training mile I logged. I couldn’t be more proud of you. Howie – I can’t thank you enough for all the training miles and pre-race chatter. Just like we planned, I was able to use those epic runs to help me through the tough stages of the race. Shannon – thanks for believing in me and always offering words of encouragement and support. I owe you a beer or two. To everyone else who wished me well and has been a part of the race build-up – thank you for following my journey and keeping me motivated.
Some days I feel like I’m too old to be running 100 milers. Standing on the South Downs Way 100 start line, I seriously questioned if my first Ultra in the UK would be last 100 mile race, but just in case you’re wondering, it won’t be. I can still do better, and I’m already looking forward to the next one…